How Shein Gatecrashed Fashion’s Sustainability Show

This week, fashion’s sustainability power players gathered in Copenhagen for the industry’s premier event focused on tackling its environmental and social impact.

It’s the first time the Global Fashion Summit organised by industry advocacy group Global Fashion Agenda has been held in person since 2020. And it took place against a backdrop of mounting urgency.

The unequal relationships that underpin poor conditions in fashion’s supply chains have been laid bare by the pandemic, and the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate change is rapidly closing. Meanwhile fashion’s emissions and production volumes are continuing to increase.

That opened the door for more critical and challenging conversations, framed by more voices and perspectives than in previous years. But in many ways it felt a lot like 2019.

There was talk of collaboration; there was talk of leadership; there was talk of moving beyond talk to actual action.

And there was one bombshell: Shein, a company that has become the industry’s poster child for wasteful overconsumption, launched a $50 million fund to tackle waste and offset its impact.

The disconnect between the Chinese company’s ultra-fast fashion business model and its new commitment felt jarring. But it’s a page straight out of fashion’s sustainability playbook.

Just like other high-profile industry players, Shein’s announcement tried to refocus the conversation on efforts to mitigate its impact without addressing its root cause: the culture of excessive consumption that fuels fashion’s growth.

In countless conversations on the conference’s sidelines I was told that the move was cynical; that it was greenwashing; that the $50 million commitment over five years pales compared to the reported $16 billion Shein generated in revenue in 2021.

That’s true. It’s also much like what many other major players do to try and address fashion’s negative impact on people and planet while continuing to churn out ever-increasing volumes of product to fuel ever-growing consumption, the real elephant in the room.

Effectively, Shein gatecrashed fashion’s sustainability narrative. In doing so, it held a mirror up to the industry’s efforts thus far, highlighting the gulf between its actions and the needs of impacted communities and the planet itself. The reflection is complicated, but it’s not particularly flattering.

That’s not to downplay the scale of Shein’s impact. The company turns out thousands of new styles every day, selling them faster and cheaper than its biggest rivals. Part of its commercial edge is also a ruthlessly efficient and data-led approach to manufacturing that head of ESG Adam Whinston argues results in less waste on the production side. But the number of new items Shein adds daily is still orders of magnitude greater than competitors.

And yet the company’s success is undoubtedly a reflection of a damaging culture of overproduction and overconsumption that the entire industry is complicit in perpetuating.

The first tranche of money will go to The Or Foundation, a charity working in Kantamanto market in Accra, Ghana, one of the world’s largest secondhand markets and the destination for millions of our discarded clothes.

Director Liz Ricketts outlined in visceral detail the harmful — sometimes deadly — impact of fashion’s throwaway culture in the summit’s opening session before announcing the partnership with Shein, drawing gasps from the audience.

Around 15 million unwanted garments are shipped to Kantamanto every week where they are sold by the bail at around $2 a piece, a sum that requires many vendors to take out high-interest loans. While many of the garments are cleaned, repaired, upcycled and recycled in a practical demonstration of circular principles on a scale that outstrips the industry’s current efforts, roughly 40 percent of everything that comes through is just waste, creating a dumping ground of old T-shirts, jeans and leggings, Ricketts said. Women known as Kayayei carry the heavy bales through the market on their heads, backbreaking and sometimes deadly work, she said.

The Or Foundation will receive $15 million over the next three years from Shein’s fund and will work with the company to identify additional grant recipients. The money will support an apprenticeship programme to move women out of dangerous Kayayei work, help community businesses to upcycle waste, improve community conditions in the market and pilot fibre-to-fibre recycling programmes with Ghanaian manufacturers. It will have a real impact.

“It’s not enough. It’s a baby step towards accountability for the industry, but it’s still incredibly meaningful to me,” Ricketts said.

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